Today Pastor Ed Allen began a Summer Book Study in the books of Jonah and Nahum. The first sermon on Jonah was titled, "Truth Matters: Fish Story or a Little Fishy...?"
Today we mainly looked at the question of whether Jonah was written as a historical account or as a morality play, fiction intended to instruct.
Why do we care?
1) Truth matters.
2) Our faith has been assaulted intellectually for centuries, and we need to respond to that assault.
3) There are young people here who will be exposed to alternatives to the Christian world view. Let's expose them to an honest, robust look at faith.
We do want to know what was the intention of the author. Was the book of Jonah intended to be historical or intended to be fiction?
Reasons to believe Jonah was written as a historical account:
-- In content and form it resembles the historical narratives of the Old Testament.
-- This is especially true of the opening of the book.
-- The book has an actual historical setting.
-- The historical information, as far as can be ascertained, is accurate.
-- Early scholarship/readership assumed it was history (Josephus, for example).
-- Jesus seemed to believe it was a retelling of actual events. (See Luke 11:30-33.) Jesus was a Biblical scholar who thought truth was important.
Reasons to believe Jonah was written as instructive fiction:
-- The book does not identify its author. (But this is also true of I and II Samuel and many other historical books of the Old Testament.)
-- Too many miraculous details are piled on top of one another. (This is a strong point. In the New Testament, miracles tend to stand more separately.)
-- Lacks some of the traditional hallmarks of Biblical historical writing. The king's name isn't mentioned. Some details are vague.
-- The overwhelming use of symbolism and exaggeration do suggest a morality play.
-- The book uses phrases and words that depend heavily on Aramaic. Most Jews would have learned Aramaic during the Assyrian captivity - after Jonah. (On the other hand, Jonah preached to Nineveh, so he would have had exposure to Aramaic.)
So how should we read this story?
Three typical responses:
1) Denial: "Don't tell me about any of the problems. I believe it 'cause it's in the Bible."
Denial is dangerous. Do the work of approaching your struggles honestly. When we doubt, we're in good company, but do the work of moving beyond doubt. Disbelief is better than apathy. Faith isn't the absence of reason.
2) Scientific rationalism: "There must be a logical explanation for this."
This can be helpful, but it's also dangerous and often leads down blind alleys. There's a story of a man swallowed by a whale in the 1800s. But when that's offered as proof of Jonah's story, they don't mention the testimony that said the account was invented.
Besides, this approach tries to remove the supernatural from the story. But our faith rests on a supernatural event - the Resurrection.
3) Intractable doubt: "I don't believe this crazy story. It's not possible."
If you have trouble believing it's historical, okay, take it as a morality tale. But if you don't believe God can do miracles -- be challenged to doubt your doubts.
Those of us who do believe don't need to be defensive. God can handle our doubts. So can the Bible.
Here's a fourth response, whether you think Jonah is historical or a parable:
Extract its message, then:
Obey and believe it.
Assignment this week: Read Jonah.
Also, Pastor Ed is going to post truth statements every day this week. Spend time with them and meditate on them.